Why I'm Starting Orchard Circle

07/21/2016 12:20 pm ET Updated Jul 22, 2017

I've mostly written about climate issues here, but today I want to write about something very close to home -- the state of contemporary classical music, and why I've become involved in starting up something called Orchard Circle, for which there is currently a Kickstarter campaign running.

New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini expressed the current situation very well, more than half a decade ago. Writing very positively about a concert given by the ensemble ACJW, he first described it along the familiar lines of breaking boundaries: characterizing this as "categories be damned," Tommasini described the broad mix-up of styles in the program, subtitled "The Mix Tape," noting that the idea was "to present substantive contemporary music with the trappings of a rock band's release party," and saying that the concert sent a clear message -- composers would borrow from "any style or genre: jazz, funk, rap, electronica. And performers from the new generation seem just as eager to play almost anything."

Then the review became less ordinary, more intriguing. "Still," Tommasini goes on, "the program was not all embracing. The works played here were either by complex modernists (Stockhausen, Babbitt, Berio), or younger freewheeling composers of a post-modernist bent, what the critic Greg Sandow calls the "alternative classical" music of today. Missing from the roster was anything by composers of, for want of a better word, the middle ground, what John Harbison has wryly referred to as "us notes-and-rhythms composers," meaning those who more or less write pieces for conventional instruments, largely eschewing electronics, composers more concerned with thematic development than with instrumental atmospherics and sound collages." The review morphs into an essay, an article involving some history, even some autobiographical observations about Tommasini's time at Yale, along with deeper reflections about the state of new classical music. He describes the dynamics of past aesthetic battles and the impacts they had upon that earlier period's "middle ground," and then returns to today's scene, adding "I only worry that pieces of more traditional excellence, like Mr. Harbison's strings quartets, will someday be heard as seldom as works by the neglected mid-20th-century Americans," and muses near the end, "For now this is just a passing worry."

The idea of Orchard Circle, then, is to create a series of concerts in New York City and Philadelphia using a relaxed, contemporary format that will address precisely what Tommasini was talking about, this disappearance of the middle. Surprisingly, Orchard Circle would seem to be the only group devoted to this cause, and I could just try to shamelessly sell you on it -- after all, who might not enjoy hearing members of the Berlin Philharmonic, led by their harpist and including their concertmaster, principal flute and principal bass, along with several other string players and piano, giving the opening concert, with food and drink and jazz sets before and after? And who might not enjoy hearing the Dover Quartet playing a work composed for them by David Ludwig inspired by Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot, with Sagan's son Dorion, himself a brilliant scientist as well as a sleight of hand artist, telling us about his work on the blue dot tricks behind our terrestrial thermodynamics, and playing one on us, too? The first concert had to be on election night (the only free night in the Berlin players' tour schedule), so we've constructed a program -- starting from Ned Rorem's The United States: Seven Viewpoints and finishing with a set of waltzes we've assembled, The Fall of the House: Waltzing through Weimar America using a hugely diverse set of fourteen American composers all coalesced together as one continuous work (for any biology nuts, think D. discoideum, and the powerful symbolism of individual organisms coming together to form a single living entity during times of need).

Tommasini's "Dogma No More" piece was written six years ago, and things clearly crystallized around his "passing fears." There is a huge diversity of activity in new music these days, and that is of course positive, but there also curiously seems to be less and less space for those "notes-and-rhythm composers." And there appears to be in many minds some new dogmatic 'manifest destiny' in which classical music must keep marching towards the popular, who knows how far, in order to be socially relevant, away from the politically incorrect ivory classical tower. In our third program, themed around race relations, people will hear the classically trained voice of Bayard Rustin -- organizer of the famous March on Washington with the "I Have a Dream" speech -- accompanying himself on the lute, mixed in with our two singers, Stephen Salters and Ariadne Grief. Rustin was a lover of classical music, and permission for one of his first actions, desegregation of a cellblock in Altoona State Prison, was actually granted so that Rustin could listen to the New York Philharmonic's radio broadcasts with some white guys on Saturdays. I know this because it was Bayard and my father who organized it.

When I first contacted John Harbison about the idea for our series, he responded saying, "I have been able to reach a conclusion that it is best for me to accept that my music, and my values in general hold little relevance for the present moment," and to me it is not at all coincidental -- those contemporary composers who feel most tied in with the tradition of classical music are feeling more and more irrelevant just as an increasingly loud chorus is questioning the relevance of classical music altogether. Indeed, to me, these two phenomena are not simply related, they are literally the same thing. That is why I feel that, in the end, everyone who wants to see classical music stay alive and well should want something like Orchard Circle to exist, even if at the moment that could clearly sound a bit ridiculous or self-inflated.

If Orchard Circle survives and prospers, it will inevitably mean somewhat different things to the many different people involved, and already a surprisingly broad coalition of about fifty composers has gotten behind it. For my own part, I feel as though a much deeper exploration of the drivers of the current changes is in order, and for the moment let's just say that it should be crystal clear today -- if it wasn't yet entirely so when Tommasini wrote his article -- that a parallel between the lack of a "middle ground" in contemporary music and the lack of "middle ground" in society itself is all too painfully easy to draw. As I write this today, it is hardly controversial to suggest that the latter is becoming profoundly dangerous. Symbolically then, at least, the former might be a bit dangerous too, and that's one reason I hope that you'll all support Orchard Circle.